Helmets: To Wear or Not To Wear?

Two approaches to riding a bike: helmeted and helmetless

At the risk of setting the internet on fire, this is an article about wearing helmets. We’ve seen a few articles lately that seem to have reignited this timeless debate, and thought we’d jump into the fray.

Before you get all fired up, know a few things

  • We believe in the studies that show helmets save lives, and always wear one when we ride
  • This author personally had his life saved, or at least avoided having to relearn the alphabet, by wearing a helmet
  • We haven’t always been stringent helmet wearers, and spent years going lidless (in fact the day I had my accident was almost a lucky chance, at the last minute I completely randomly decided to grab my helmet for my ride to the grocery store)
  • Ultimately the choice whether or not to wear one is up to you

Like politics, helmet wearing tends to be super divisive. The two most vocal camps (though maybe not the most numerous) tend to be:

  1. Helmets are totally unnecessary for the everyday cyclist, and just make cycling seem more unappealing
  2. Helmets offer critical protection, and should be mandatory for everyone.

But in the middle are a huge number of riders who just go out and ride their bikes, do what they do, and don’t really get too worked up about stuff like this.

But for the sake of argument, let’s break down the two opposing views:

 Anti-Helmet:

This mom and daughter in Hasselt, Belgium are just going about their business-- no helmets needed

This mom and daughter in Hasselt, Belgium are just going about their business– no helmets needed

This camp tends to be more the urban/transportation type of rider, who usually bikes at slower speeds, and in slower moving traffic. To these riders, the helmet is simply an impediment to getting people on bikes. There are some valid arguments to be made here, including studies that show that mandatory helmet laws decrease participation, which actually makes riding more dangerous since there are fewer bikes on the road. Others dislike them because they think it makes cycling seem excessively dangerous, or that they do little to prevent injury. These are also valid points—most cyclists will never need the protection a helmet provides, and in the event of an accident, there really is only so much a helmet can do.

Let’s look at some other positives here:

  • Your hair will always look fantastic (unless it’s windy)
  • It’s one less thing to worry about buying
  • Riding helmetless feels more relaxing
  • You won’t get as hot when you ride
Helmet or no, we kind of hope we look like this guy on a bike when we're older. Major steez, for sure

Helmet or no, we kind of hope we look like this guy on a bike when we’re older. Major steez.

Another point that is often cited is that helmet use is relatively uncommon in other industrialized countries, such as in Europe.

When we were in Belgium a few weeks ago, we saw countless people on bicycles in the city going about their commuting and errand-running business without helmets…similar to what we have seen when we’ve visited and ridden in Norway, Denmark, France and Italy (although in all those places we always noticed road and MTB riders wearing helmets). And before you get up in arms about better infrastructure, allow us to say that riding in a city in Europe, even ones with protected bike lanes, can often be more terrifying than riding along a divided highway in the U.S. The roads are tiny, the drivers are unpredictable, and the traffic patterns are utterly incomprehensible. If a car can fit somewhere, then that’s where that car is going—pedestrians, cyclists and legally-binding signage or not.

The point is that people choose to ride bikes, and don’t worry too much about the details.

Couple just out for a ride on a rare warm Belgian evening

Couple just out for a ride on a rare warm Belgian evening

Pro Helmet:

For many, wearing a helmet is a basic safety precaution

For many, wearing a helmet is a basic safety precaution

For others riders, the helmet is a necessary safety precaution, and one that they wouldn’t leave the house without, akin to wearing a seatbelt. Personally, this is the camp we fall into. We freely admit that if you’re struck by one ton of metal at 35mph, there’s only so much some foam and plastic can do, but that simple barrier can, and often does, mean the difference between a traumatic brain injury and a mild headache—as it did for us.

Study after study has shown that helmets can and do reduce the risk of both minor and serious head injury. Many take the view that there is little to be gained and much to be lost by not wearing a helmet. You only get one brain, and the brain is the only part of the body that can’t repair itself, so you better protect it.

Study after study has shown that helmets save lives and can prevent more serious injuries

Study after study has shown that helmets save lives and can prevent more serious injuries

The counter argument to the European philosophy is that you have to be realistic. We might all work toward and strive for that hopefully-near future when North American roads and politics will permit two-wheeled travel the way that some European cities do, but in the here-and-now that is simply not the case, and wishing will not make it so. Drivers here are inattentive, in many communities it’s still uncommon to see people using bicycles for transportation or recreation, and in many cities the roads were simply not designed for pedestrian or bicycle travel. Cycling on many American roads can be dangerous, and while you can’t live in fear, it’s best to take reasonable precautions.

Anecdotally, I was struck by a car in Chicago in a 25mph zone. While this might not seem fast, try riding 25mph on your bicycle and it sure seems fast enough. Even at that slow speed, with an oblique strike, it was powerful enough to throw me to the ground, break my collar bone in two places, fracture my scapula, and smash my helmet. At the ER I was told, verbatim, by the doctor holding my destroyed helmet: “if you hadn’t been wearing this, you would probably be upstairs in intensive care and we’d be calling your family”.

We won’t go so far as to advocate for mandatory helmet laws—at some point personal choice and personal responsibility become factors—but to us wearing a helmet is a smart personal choice.

Every year more and more styles of non-technical helmets become available

Every year more and more styles of non-technical helmets become available

So now that we’ve examined—at least in cursory detail—both sides of the argument, let’s hear your thoughts.

27 Responses to Helmets: To Wear or Not To Wear?

  1. Scott McIntyre says:

    My story…30 miles into a 70 mile ride…4 miles from ANYTHING..ran down by dog. Broken collar bone. Helmet cracked completely up one side, inside. No helmet, probably would not be typing this comment.

    • BT says:

      Thanks for commenting Scott. Sorry to hear about your accident, but we’re glad you’re ok. We can definitely relate to your story, we’ve been there. Ride safe out there, and enjoy the warmer riding weather.

  2. Peter Gorham says:

    To me a helmet is like American Express; Never leave home without it! It’s better to be safe than sorry. Besides, helmet design has become much better with better airflow, lighter weight, and better looks.

    • BT says:

      We definitely agree Peter. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Better have it and not need it than to need it and not have it……

  4. Simple, my wife won’t let me ride without one. No helmet, no ride. I want to ride, I wear a helmet. Been doing it so long it’s just second nature.

  5. Skip Griffin says:

    My wife says I’m “hardheaded” but she still thinks I should wear a helmet on every ride, funny thing is I agree with her on this one…!!!

  6. Brad says:

    For those of us who are follicular challenged, it also provides some protection from the sun. I think the author sums it up perfectly with “there is so little to gain, and so much to lose” by not wearing one.

  7. MarioC says:

    Never used to wear a helmet and when I was a kid, nobody wore one and we were all riding and jumping on our BMX bikes (small jumps, not the stuff you see nowadays. In fact, if you wore a helmet, you’d probably be the laughing stock of the neighborhood. Now, though, I always wear one. Could be because there’s a lot more danger involved or perhaps because I’m grown and have a family. Also could be that views have changed and a roadie or MTBiker (I do both) would pretty much be shunned if they weren’t wearing one. All the riding groups I know of have a strict “helmet or no ride” policy. Plus, it’s a cool fashion accessory, so there’s that.

  8. MarcellusB says:

    My philosophy is, “People who don’t wear a helmet don’t need one” (nothing worth protecting up there).

  9. Jon says:

    Hit a tree root that had lifted the road surface, over the handlebars and on to my head and shoulde. Separated shoulder and a need to buy a new helmet instead of crunching my skull into the road – always wear a helmet!

  10. Michael B says:

    Have had my head meet the pavement a few times both with and without a helmet. The one time without I ended up with a concussion and fractured eye socket. The times with a helmet, I got up and rode on. I think I’ll stick with wearing a helmet, thank you.

  11. sharon says:

    I wear a helmet. I ride mtb on some gnarly trails, conservatively, because I’m old and I seldom crash because I’m old and know I won’t heal very quickly because of that very reason. But, a few days ago I took the wrong line jumping over a rock and front wheel came down turned, the ground turned the wheel to 90 degrees and I was Super(wo)man for a second. When I stopped flying my noggin was pushing against a tree. I loved my helmet at the time very much.

  12. AtoB says:

    My philosphy is: if you want to wear a helmet, wear a helmet. Have a nice ride. I don’t wear one, and don’t feel the need to insult people who do.

  13. mclinde says:

    I think the biggest thing to remember about helmets and cycling in general is that you can’t compare the US to Europe. Cycling isn’t part of our mainstream transportation culture the way it is in many countries in Europe, but cars are. I’m not saying a helmet will save you in a bike-car incident, but I will say that everyone I’ve known who has a ghost bike because of a car wasn’t wearing a helmet. As a parent I want to teach my kids safety first, and let them think about alternative decisions later, so I wear a helmet all the time, even when riding on a secluded trail alongside my toddler on her strider (and she’s wearing one too).

  14. KylePolansky says:

    I’m always going to wear a helmet when I ride a bike. The 2 accidents I’ve been in have been fairly minor and I’ve had no major bodily damage. However, I don’t think wearing a helmet can hurt, and I know that I would regret not wearing one if a major accident were ever to occur.

  15. Kevin says:

    Last year an inexperienced driver pulled out in front of me while I was riding. I didn’t have time to turn or break so I did the only option available to me, I hit his car doing over 17MPH. From where I hit his car to where I sat up on the road was about 25 feet. I only fractured my collarbone and got some scrapes. I do remember quite vividly my head bouncing off of the road. My helmet has the scars from the accident and not my head. Helmets work. $50 isn’t too much to spend to protect the $50,000 education.

  16. FJ says:

    I’m so use to the helmet, I don’t give a second thought about wearing it. Rather be safe than sorry. I have a family depending on me staying healthy.

  17. Louie Trujillo says:

    Although we may never get everyone to agree on this subject we can start by teaching our love ones about the importance of safety. I never wore a helmet as a kid, now I wish I did. I had a accident doing 20 miles an hour last year and let me tell you, I am thankful tha I had a helmet on!!! I share my personal experience with everyone I meet while riding because I care for their well being. Again, we may never agree on this subject but we can always try to pass the message along…..keep safe and ride hard…….

    • Kevin says:

      I’m with you on that. At the risk of sounding narcissistic I try to tell everyone I can about my accident to try and convey the importance (IMO) of wearing safety equipment, especially a helmet.

  18. herman g heard says:

    hit a road hazard ,flipped over my bike ,hit the ground on my head,slid on my face,cracked my skull, needed a craniotomy,ihad a helmet on !my wife was directly behind me and saw the whole thing….she wont let me out the house without a helmet, she really doesn’t have to tell me though…I have two helmets…gary

  19. Randy says:

    I’ve cracked 2 helmets. One descending on a fire road riding a mountain bike…fat in a turn, airborne to the point where time slowed down and the thought, “I wonder where I’m going to land” was answered by gravity and physics saying on your head and shoulder dumbass. The second time on a road bike when some bozo turned right, right into me causing a face plant, cracked shoulder and among other things, a cracked helmet. Was layed up for three weeksI I won’t ride without a helmet or eye protection.
    Randy

  20. Steve Plourde says:

    I’ve crashed twice, both times going less than 10 mph. Both times I had the front tire get stuck in a groove between the concrete and asphalt. Second time was the worse injury- wise, but first time I hit the pavement shoulder and helmet first. Lid on the helmet was scrapped as wheel as part of my cheek. It was only after I got home that I checked the helmet and saw the split on the right side. I knew at that point it could have been my head. I’ve also hit head first into our garage door. Front tire slipped on some moss as I was coming back from a ride. Hit the garage door square on the top of my helmet.

  21. Rick Peoples says:

    Eight out of ten statistics can be made to say anything you want, including the one I just said. Every time this subject comes up, these message boards light up and everyone has an opinion. The only thing I agree with is that it’s a personal choice. For example, I don’t think the doctor has any idea what could have happened to you in that crash, any more than I do. Do you instinctively fall differently when you are not wearing a big plastic bucket on your head? Do you take more chances if you think you’re “protected” and that leads to more crashes? What about studies that show motorists will drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those not wearing helmets? That can be dangerous in itself. I have only been a cyclist for 40 plus years, so I am no expert. I have raced bicycles and motorcycles, and I have had some interesting crashes that have hurt, just like everyone else, but again, I am no expert. You could fill these pages up with stories from experts that go both ways — I’m glad I was wearing a helmet, or the damn thing nearly got me killed. Probably 50-50. Refer to my opinion on statistics above….

  22. Barry says:

    I always ride with a helmet but I like that it’s my choice and not the law.

  23. triblogcarol says:

    I had a crash at 31 mph. I was going down a twisty descent – when of all things, a large branch fell from the tree canopy and landed smack dab in front of me. It’s a good thing it was a twisty descent, or I’d have been going alot faster. Let me tell you crashing at 31mph is not fun. My collarbone was broken into three pieces, my shirt and shorts had melted off as I skidded down the road. My helmet was compressed and cracked in half on the side where I landed. I blacked out and don’t remember anything between seeing the branch – until I woke up in the hospital. I have no doubt in my mind that my head would have cracked open instead of the helmet. It’s just a no brainer for me to wear a helmet.

    There have also been times where I was riding around town at low speeds or riding trails on a mountain bike at low speeds, and took a minor spill and my head hit a curb or rock. I don’t think it’s just high speed road riding that you need a helmet for. They aren’t expensive, and there are plenty of light weight ventilated choices that “they are too hot” is just a silly excuse.

  24. ron6788 says:

    After reading the comments, I feel like just hanging up my helmet and forgetting about riding altogether…

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